Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Terror and the Art of Writing

"Write what you fear," advises Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools, his incredibly generous and useful guide to writing.  I am trying, Mr. Clark, really I am.  On Monday the 27th, I'll be giving a talk and reading on the campus where I teach.  I've called the talk "Picture This:".  That colon in the title is important; everything in the talk and the reading itself will revolve around the idea of the poetic image.  
When I write poetry, I always begin with image--never idea or argument or thing that makes me want to climb on my soap box and shout to the world.  That's what my blog and letters and emails and long talks over tea with my girlfriends are for.  Poems are for discovery, for experimenting with sound, and for the very serious business of playing with images (well, those other things can be for that, too!).  Arguments and ideas may emerge from image and sound--or they may not--but the most important thing is that foundation, that leaping off point for the imagination.  
"A poem should not mean / but be," Archibald MacLeish tells us, and William Carlos Williams in a "A Sort of Song" claims, "No ideas but in things."  They both echo aspects of John Keats' negative capability, because in order to trust the poetic image and to trust and respect the reader enough to take an imaginative leap from image, the poet has to be able to exist "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."  Keats, pictured above, died at twenty-five.  Who understands negative capability at twenty-five, let alone conceives of and gives name to it?  Maybe the fact that he knew he would die young enabled him to grasp something most folks seem to struggle with their whole lives.
So, Roy Peter Clark, I, at well beyond twenty-five, am trying my best to cultivate my negative capability; I am trying to trust in my knowledge of the poetic image, and of form, and of phenomenology, and of good old poetic elements like lineation and meter to be able to write what I fear.  Even more terrifying, next Monday I am going to try to speak what I fear.  Why am I so afraid?  I've been teaching poetry for a decade and these days I give public readings almost every month.  Plus I'm a ham who loves nothing more than an audience.  What's my problem?
Actually, I can't answer that, which is probably a good thing.  It's also probably a good thing that I'm feeling a rising panic about this talk.  I care more about the poetic image than about most things in life.  It's what I think about when I wake up in the morning; it's what I think about when I'm brushing my teeth.  It's there when I'm waiting in line at the post office or stirring a pot of soup.  Sometimes the image is an apple; other days it's a microphone or a staircase or a bee hive or a corned beef, but no matter its shape, it's there, waiting for me to see it, put pen to it, give shape to it, breathe life in it, find a way, no matter how afraid, to speak.


  1. 'A Poem should not mean but be' *dance* I agree whole heartedly with that!

  2. Isn't it wonderful?! Have you read the whole poem, "Ars Poetica," from which the quote comes? It's one of my favorite poems ever. Thanks for visiting my blog!


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